When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Glai Baan
Location: 2333 East Osborn Road
Open: Less than a month
Eats: Thai street food and dishes from the Isan region of northeastern Thailand
Metro Phoenix doesn't suffer from a lack of Thai restaurants. But it has, for too long, lived without a restaurant like Glai Baan Thai Street Food.
Glai Baan, which opened a few weeks ago near 24th Street and Osborn Road in Phoenix, specializes in Thai street food, and the regional cooking of northeastern Thailand. You'll detect an obsession with big, bold flavors across the menu, with ingredients like garlic, basil, kafir lime, and Thai chiles skillfully deployed to achieve compelling and refined seasonings, sauces, and curries.
It's an exciting menu, one that evokes memories of Bangkok street stalls, or maybe late-night snacking at famed West Coast Thai spots like Pok Pok in Portland, or Night + Market in Los Angeles.
The restaurant's principal architect is head chef and co-owner Pornsupak "Cat" Bunnag, who has roots in both Bangkok and northeast Thailand. With Glai Baan, the talented chef has brought a piece of the motherland to midtown Phoenix, to a small, charming house that was most recently home to the upscale Mexican restaurant Mejico.
There are still traces of the former occupant here and there; Mexican tiles frame the blooming bougainvillea near the front entrance. But Glai Baan already feels self-possessed and nicely settled into its space. The white tablecloths have disappeared from the dining room, replaced with warm, nostalgic touches, including a gallery wall of old family photos, strings of Edison bulbs, and earthy macrame jute hanging planters. Outside, there's a fairly good size patio, well-lit in the evenings, with comfortable tables outfitted in cheery yellow oilcloth.
Your server, more than likely, is friendly and knowledgeable. This is the kind of serious restaurant where it's easy to get into a protracted conversation with your server about the finer points of, say, northern Thai-style sausage making. Questions are rewarded with lengthy answers. Dinner, in general, seems to move at a leisurely pace. The kitchen briefly got backed up during my recent visit, but even this hiccup wouldn't qualify as a serious or unreasonable delay.
The menu is divided between about a dozen small plates and a half-dozen entrees. Traditional family-style dining is encouraged.
It's hard to resist a good larb, and the one at Glai Baan is intensely and beautifully seasoned. The minced pork, perfumed with shallots and mint, is generously sluiced with a lime dressing. The richly spiced salad is at once refreshing and a little spicy.
Kanom jeeb, or steamed pork dumplings, are nearly irresistible. The dumplings, nicely sealed with hand-pinched folds, are almost velvety in texture, and ideal containers for the juicy, drippy pork filling. They're served with a ginger soy dipping sauce, which clings to the delicate wrapper, and brings another dimension of bright, salty flavor to the dish.
Son-in-law eggs, twice-cooked eggs that are boiled, fried, and served with a sweet-sour sauce, are a simple, delightful side dish. The contrast in textures is a pleasure — the egg's crusty, fried exterior yields nicely to its creamy nucleus. The sweet-sour sauce is not too cloying, evoking something like eggs touched with honey or syrup.
The entree menu is composed mostly of northern Thai-style noodle and rice dishes, including a take on kao soi, a popular curry dish that's closely associated with northern Thailand. The broth hints at layer upon layer of spice — garlic, coconut, turmeric, definitely ginger. A tangle of bouncy egg noodles soak up the rich broth, while fried noodles, sprinkled on top, seem to melt right into the broth. The dish registers as creamy and decadent.
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If you're wondering if there is pad thai on the menu, the answer is yes.
But there is also pad kee mao, sometimes also known as drunken noodles, a flavorful stir-fry that is sort of like pad thai's slightly cooler, spicier cousin (you can request your desired spice level for the dish). The dish is richly perfumed with garlic, basil and chiles, and served with slivers of vaguely crispy pork belly. The soft, luxuriously fatty slices of pork seem to vanish into the dish, all of it coalescing into a deliciously aromatic plate of slippery, soft noodles and meat, spiked with the occasional bamboo shoot or mushroom. It's wonderful.
Chef Bunnag and her team also offer off-menu dinner specials every evening, and it will be interesting to see how the menu continues to expand over the coming months.
With its refined take on Thai street food, and a strong menu of regional Thai dishes, Glai Baan has become, quite suddenly, one of the most exciting and distinctive new restaurants in metro Phoenix.